October 18, 2023
PHNOM PENH – In Cambodia’s cultural fabric, cinemas have woven a narrative of change and continuity.
From the first cinema in Phnom Penh during the early 20th century to the enchanting days of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era under then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk to the vibrant CGI colours of the present, the Kingdom’s movie theatres have borne witness to an evolution mirroring the pulse of the nation’s entertainment history.
As the contemporary landscape overflows with a multitude of entertainment choices, it is worthwhile to explore the journey of cinemas, where technology, audience preferences and societal transformations have taken centre stage.
Dy Saveth, a prominent figure from the “Golden Age of Khmer Cinema”, along with her husband Huoy Keng, noted that while many of the older theatres still stand in their original locations, they have been repurposed into office buildings and for various functions.
“I fondly remember a time when people would visit theatres with palpable excitement because it was one of the rare forms of entertainment available during that era,” she reminisced.
As a former moviegoer, Prum Pheak recalled his love for watching films with classmates in cinemas across the capital city, even venturing to nearby Takhmao town.
He reminisced that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people would queue shoulder to shoulder in front of movie theatres.
“Once, while waiting in line at Vimean Tep Cinema, a security guard used his belt to discipline those not in line, as they could potentially cause chaos when people rushed to purchase their tickets,” he shared.
In his 50s now, Pheak, who has not experienced today’s cinemas, recounted that the lack of air conditioning made moviegoers uncomfortable and drenched in sweat.
Nonetheless, this did not deter enthusiasts like Pheak, who even travelled to Takhmao’s cinemas to watch Bollywood films.
Cine Lux, an architectural masterpiece designed by French architect Roger Colne in 1938, was the last surviving standalone cinema in the heart of Phnom Penh.
Until the early 1990s, it boasted 650 seats and hosted various events, including film screenings and theatrical performances.
Following renovations, it reopened in 2001 but closed its doors in 2017.
Other cinemas from the 1960s, such as Hemakcheat, Borkor, and Kirirom, have been repurposed into apartments, restaurants, or KTVs.
“Among all the cinemas with a nearly 100-year history, Lux Cinema is one of the longest-running cinemas, second only to Chenla Cinema, which no longer hosts regular screenings,” shared Hun Sokagna, a researcher and project leader of the Roung Kon Project, a group of architects and architecture students dedicated to promoting and documenting cinemas in Cambodia.
Pok Borak, director of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ Department of Film and Cultural Promotion, emphasised that cinemas still serve as vital platforms for promoting films that embody education and culture.
“Despite the closure of standalone cinemas such as Lux and Prum Bayon due to societal shifts, audiences have transitioned to modern malls filled with entertainment venues,” he stated.
Cinemas today offer an unparalleled level of comfort and immersion. With plush, reclining seating, immersive audio systems, and high-definition visuals, the movie-going experience has been elevated. The convenience of concessions and ticketing options enhances the overall enjoyment for audiences of all ages.
The history of cinemas in Cambodia can be traced back to the French protectorate era when the Kingdom was introduced to the world of movies.
The inaugural cinema in Phnom Penh, known as Brignon, opened its doors in 1909, and it was situated along the riverfront, as documented by the Roung Kon Project.
“In the annals of Cambodian cinema, His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk holds the distinction of being the first Cambodian to venture into the realm of cinema. He initiated the production of short films using 16mm film as early as the late 1940s,” disclosed the project.
1950s – 1960s: The golden era
During the 1950s, pioneering filmmakers like Roeum Phon, Eav Ponnakar and Som Sam Al, who had pursued their studies abroad, made significant contributions to the creation of the first Cambodian-produced films, as reported by Sokagna.
Saveth, who embarked on her journey in the film industry during the 1950s when she was crowned Miss Cambodia at the tender age of 15, possesses a rich history within Cambodian cinema.
“I was too young to take note of the cinemas until I entered the film industry, and I discovered that during my time, there were fewer than ten theatres,” she reflected.
The expansion of cinemas in Cambodia during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era and the earlier years of the republic was truly remarkable, as noted by Borak.
In an era defined by black and white television and a single channel, cinemas emerged as the most sought-after form of entertainment.
“In the 1960s and 70s, films often depicted traditional tales, such as the narrative of Puthisean Neang Kong Rey or the legend of Chao Srotop Chek,” he explained.
The 1960s and early 70s marked a period of heightened popularity for cinema. It was during this time that the rise of Cambodian filmmaking led to the construction of movie theatres.
In 1969, the State Cinema, known today as the Chenla Cinema, was formally inaugurated, situated near the present-day traffic light of Phsar Doeum Kor.
1970s – 1980s: The growth and decline
The landscape took a grim turn when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, and the situation deteriorated rapidly.
The threat of explosions or grenades inside venues forced the closure of theatres, as reported by the Roung Kon Project.
It wasn’t until the end of 1974 and the beginning of 1975 that individual cinema owners made the decision to cease screenings.
During this turbulent period, people were reluctant to leave their homes, fearing the arrival of the Khmer Rouge.
Under the Khmer Rouge regime, traditional forms of entertainment, including cinema, music, dance, and literature, faced severe restrictions or bans.
The regime aimed to establish a society solely focused on agricultural labour and the implementation of their communist ideals, leading to the suppression of most forms of artistic expression and entertainment.
Cambodia’s film industry gradually resurged with the release of My Mother is Arb (Krasue Mom), a horror film rooted in Khmer folklore.
This marked a significant milestone as it was the first movie produced within Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge era.
During this period, movies like Chet Chorng Cham (Reminding the Mind) and Norouk Pramboun Chaon (Nine Levels of Hell) began to emerge.
These films either depicted the hardships endured during the Khmer Rouge regime or life under the Vietnam-backed administration.
As the film industry regained its footing, the project noted the emergence of over 200 production companies, all competing for coveted screening slots in more than 30 cinemas across the capital.
The film industry experienced a renaissance in the 1980s, with well-known actors and actresses such as Tep Rindaro, Ampor Tevy, Sok Srey Mom, and Khai Piseth becoming icons recognized by individuals of all ages.
“During that time, VHS cameras became the primary tool for filmmakers, leading to a surge in production. From 1987 to 1990, we were producing approximately 100 films annually, and the city boasted as many as 33 cinemas,” Borak recalled.
1990s – 2000s: The collapse of industry to modernisation
The advent of VHS cameras brought both advantages and disadvantages to the film industry.
While it allowed more production companies to create a greater number of movies, the downside became increasingly apparent, especially when the quality of productions declined.
Consequently, Borak pointed out that this period marked the start of a gradual decline in cinema attendance.
“Starting from 1990, cinemas began to close down gradually, nearly disappearing entirely by 1994. This was due to the ease of film production with new cameras, which were accessible to both skilled and unskilled individuals, resulting in a flood of low-quality movies,” explained Borak.
By 1995, most Cambodian production shifted towards karaoke, and by 1996, HD cameras had become widely available.
Since the early 1990s, the local film industry has been making a slow comeback.
The heyday of local filmmaking, characterised by the presence of 33 cinemas in Phnom Penh, gradually faded away and completely disappeared in the 2000s, making way for modern cinemas located within shopping malls.
He observed that this period coincided with societal transformations, including new investments and changes in the entertainment landscape.
Although in 2001, Kon pous keng kang (The Snake King’s Child), directed by Fai Sam Ang, marked Cambodia’s cinematic revival, and the sole standalone Cine Lux underwent renovations to compete with modern cinemas, it couldn’t sustain Cine Lux for long.
2010s – 2020s: The modern landscape
Today’s cinema experience has undergone a remarkable transformation, thanks to cutting-edge technology, offering audiences unparalleled comfort and immersion.
Modern cinemas now feature plush and ergonomic seating, often equipped with reclining options, ensuring that viewers can fully relax and enjoy the movie.
State-of-the-art sound systems envelop the audience in rich and immersive audio, while high-definition, crystal-clear projection technology delivers stunning visuals.
Furthermore, many theatres provide amenities such as gourmet concessions and advanced ticketing options, making the entire movie-going experience comfortable and convenient for audiences of all ages.
Borak acknowledged that the participation and support of the film industry in cinemas during previous decades were substantial compared to today’s popularity.
However, he noted that the number of people attending cinemas today surpasses any other generation, although he couldn’t provide an exact figure.
“Despite the strong support cinema enjoyed in previous generations, today’s viewership has surged, with approximately 3 million tickets sold annually,” he said.
In the modern entertainment landscape, there is a multitude of options, including television, social media, and various other entertainment venues.
Currently, Cambodia boasts three major cinema chains—Legend, Major, and Prime Cineplex.
Additionally, modern cinemas can be found in various provinces such as Ek Phnom in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Baray Andet in Siem Reap.
“We currently have more than 25 cinemas, including eight in the provinces, totaling 110 cinemas with nearly 17,000 seats,” noted Borak.
These days, audiences predominantly favour three main genres: comedy, horror, and drama, according to the director of the Department of Film and Cultural Promotion.
A selection of the shuttered and mourned traditional theatres includes: